Illustration by Tilly Binucci

Watching Azeem Rafiq give his emotional account of the years of institutional racism he witnessed and experienced at Yorkshire, two things struck me.

First, Rafiq’s testimony has enormous resonance within the contemporary debate about institutional racism. April’s Sewell Report on the subject, which found that there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK, was hailed by many as a shining example of empirical standards and objective truth. Rafiq’s painstakingly detailed testimony is a case-study in the more sordid reality. His is a story of overt abuse, victim-blaming, and silent onlookers which no doubt has parallels in workplaces and changing rooms up and down the country. It reveals, more than anything else, a lack of basic humanity within Britain’s cricketing institutions.

Aspects of Rafiq’s testimony before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee also point to the roots of cricket’s complicated role in the formation of cultural identities. When Rafiq justified his continued affection for Yorkshire Cricket Club by saying, “I’ve got a bit of Karachi and a bit of Barnsley in me”, my mind jumped to the quotation which gives this article its title. Encapsulated in those words from CLR James is the essential truth about cricket. It is not simply 22 men wearing white pyjamas and standing in a green English field for an excessively long period of time. It is both a sport and a global cultural phenomenon.

Cricket has always been perceived as a totem of British identity and has come to represent a marker in the debate over what constitutes ‘the national soul’: Just look at those who criticise ‘The Hundred’ for its glitz and gimmick, and those who see not just the abolition of the six-ball over, but the impending fall of western civilisation. The melodrama which oozes from the title of Michael Henderson’s 2020 book about the decline of county cricket, That Will Be England Gone, typifies the high stakes in the debate that links cricket and cultural identity.

The Rafiq case encapsulates a defining aspect of the sport’s cultural baggage: its relationship with the British Empire. The Victorians viewed the sport as a perfect channel for their ‘civilising’ mission, and their trumpeting of cricket’s moral values in the context of imperial conquest is typical of the Raj’s hollow high-mindedness. It is doubtful that Churchill had the principle of ‘equanimity’ on his mind when he signed off on the policies which led to the Bengal famine of 1943. Reginald Dwyer must have momentarily forgotten the ‘fair play’ which he had been taught at boarding school when he ordered the Amritsar massacre of 1919. Cricket was exported around the world by the British Empire, packaged together with the segregationist white supremacy that underpinned the imperial mission. The first recorded match between whites and natives in India was only played on the condition that the latter replace their bats with umbrellas. In the West Indies the first competitive match involving black people was in 1895. Cricket was a tool of differentiation, not unity.

This historical context adds a vicious and tragic irony to the case of Azeem Rafiq. A sport that was spread around the world two centuries ago by exponents of white supremacy, fired by the spirit enshrined in Kipling’s poem, ‘The White Man’s Burden’, has failed to shed these noxious undertones. Exactly 200 years on from the first recorded match in India, in 1721 at the Bay of Cambay, Azeem Rafiq and countless others of South-Asian heritage were still treated as outsiders by the white men whose ancestors had ‘gifted’ them cricket. Some gift! So when the ex-international Alex Hales named his dog Kevin “because it’s black”, or Gary Ballance persistently referred to an Indian teammate as ‘Dave’, they borrowed, however unconsciously, the 19th century’s racially charged imperialism.

The ECB’s desperate attempts to make cricket more attractive to a broader franchise have taken many different forms. However, the frantic focus on day-night tests, pink balls and the much-derided ‘Hundred’ has so far neglected to address a more pertinent truth; the sport’s historical amnesia blights the game to the present day. It is more than a shame that it took Rafiq’s private tribulations and public tears to reveal this truth. Identities that straddle Barnsley and Karachi, or Birmingham and Kashmir are undeniably part of cricket’s legacy. However, they do not have to remain relics of our shared imperial past. Both in cricket, and more widely, they can be beacons of a more tolerant future. 

Ollie Nicholls

Outside of his degree you can find Ollie stoically supporting the ever-woeful Fulham FC and stress drinking mugs of Earl Grey as a consequence.